About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Alan Collins on a Victorian pseudo-science that addressed fears of the anonymous urban 'other'

April 15, 2010

Physiognomy, broadly conceived, was the belief that a person's appearance could tell us something about their personal characteristics. By examining its use in a variety of domains, Sharrona Pearl argues that physiognomy was a pervasive aspect of life in Victorian Britain and not the rather improbable idea and unimportant practice that has characterised its depiction in most historical accounts. Instead, with deft irony, she argues that its place in 19th-century culture sheds new light on the hidden preoccupations and concerns of the age.

One of physiognomy's promises was to provide a guide to how to read the appearance of others in everyday urban living and so navigate safely some of the invisible threats posed by such living. Sometimes this guidance was literal, as in The Pocket Lavater, or, The Science of Physiognomy, published in 1801. More often it was implicit and informed things such as the ways portraits and caricatures were constructed and read, and how characters were portrayed and interpreted in plays. Physiognomy was also used to depict differences between racial groups and Pearl shows how it was widely employed to claim that "Irishness" and "Jewishness" could be made visible.

When photography emerged in the mid-19th century, it gave new promise to physiognomy and was soon employed by Hugh Welch Diamond, a doctor at the Surrey County Asylum. Here it was touted as a means of illustrating forms of insanity but more intriguingly as a means of therapy, the idea being that showing the patient a photograph of herself would help her recognise her madness in an essential step in recovery. Photography also invigorated attempts to distil out the characteristics of groups, as in Francis Galton's attempts to produce composite photographs that unveiled the central physiognomic characteristics of "Jewishness".

For Pearl, these various uses of physiognomy were driven most of all by urbanisation and its associated threats of anonymity and disorder. Physiognomy offered a potential means of maintaining order through identifying group differences and giving meaning to social interactions by allowing participants to know quickly something about another person's essential but hidden characteristics. But physiognomy went further and reinforced Victorian preoccupations with self-presentation, the roles played in judgement by instinct and craft skills, and a fascination with the never-to-be-realised promise of an exact realism. This is rich fare and although, as Pearl acknowledges, some of the themes she alludes to are familiar ones, others are less so, and make this a useful addition to understanding Victorian cultural life.

About Faces is written in a decidedly academic style and it is likely to appeal most to those with academic interests in the period or in physiognomy. As one would hope with a book on this subject, it contains some fascinating illustrations that lift the text. Pearl recognises that it is hard to believe that the majority of the populace walked city streets using a physiognomic language to read the characters of their fellow citizens. As a consequence, one is left with a sense that physiognomic language was largely something for the educated, urban middle class, especially in London; thus Pearl's claims are most convincing when limited to that slice of cultural life.

Although this book is clearly a cultural history of Victorian Britain, the resonances of physiognomy with current preoccupations and events are poignant. With pervasive concerns about the alleged invisible threats in our midst, any technology or idea, old or new, that promises to reveal those threats tends to carry weight. As Pearl rightly concludes, the promise of establishing reliable links between appearance and underlying reality was played for high stakes - and still is.

About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Sharrona Pearl

Harvard University Press 302pp, £36.95

ISBN 9780674036048

Published 29 January 2010

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